Zucchero Sweetens the Palace

Zucchero_blackcatusacanadaMy wife and I were very fortunate last weekend to attend the San Francisco stop on the latest tour of Italian superstar Adelmo “Zucchero” Fornaciari. This man known simply as “Zucchero” who reportedly first picked up a guitar the year I graduated high school in 1978 somehow escaped our attention until the turn of the century, when we travelled to Sienna Italy and were surrounded by posters of his then new tour, supporting the album Shake (2001). We knew of Italian progressive rockers Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and in a sort of happy coincidence were stopping in Pennsylvania on the way home from Italy to see a rare appearance by that band at a prog music festival. But we also picked up Zucchero’s decidedly not-prog record, learning that it was recorded near our Zucchero_Shakehome in Sausalito, then back in Italy, finally mixing and mastering at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios. It was a certified hit for Zucchero – an album of boisterous, life-affirming music. We instantly fell in love with the man and his work. From the strength of that initial exposure we started our collection, which now includes the newest, Black Cat (2016). We more recently snatched up tickets to what ended up being a fantastico, bellissimo, heart-rending blues and soul infused evening of music last Sunday night.

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What we’ve learned is what many readers may already know, and I recommend the rest of you learn, that Zucchero’s career spans more than three decades, with worldwide record sales over 60 million and an impressive collection of awards and accolades received over those years. The gospel, blues, soul and rock music influenced artist is considered to be “the father of the Italian blues.” Zucchero, meaning ‘sugar’ in Italian, is a nickname given to Adelmo by a schoolteacher when he was just a young boy growing up in Roncocesi, Italy. It’s an appropriate moniker for the musician whose work is often about love and whose presence on stage exudes joy, passion and positivity. When sampling Zucchero’s work for the first time, take the time to browse a variety of his albums/songs and notice that much of his work is akin to listening to many of those he has collaborated with over the years (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Peter Gabriel and so many more), while drawing strongly from his native Italian roots.

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Black Cat is a return to the artist’s much beloved blues & soul style work, and as such is being compared to his fourth studio album, oro incenso e mirra (“gold, incense & beer) in 1990. We read that the latest album was inspired while touring the southern U.S. and that Zucchero wrote the songs much as he did in the early days of his career, when things were more simple and he didn’t have as much to lose and didn’t care about the logic of the market. The album features among others the song S.O.S. (Streets of Surrender) penned by long time friend, Bono of U2. The song, born on the wave of terrorist attacks in Paris last November is a hymn against such hatred and violence.

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Zucchero’s March 19th, 2017 show at the San Francisco Palace of the Fine Arts not only joyfully delivered most of the tracks off of Black Cat, but with more than 30 tracks on the set list, it also included so many of his audience’s favorite songs spanning the past few decades, from the sexy Baila Morena (Shake 2001 – Spanish Version), to the passionate duet with Pavarotti Miserere (Miserere 1992), the soulfully beautiful Bacco Perbacco (Fly 2006), Un Soffio Caldo (Chocobeck 2012 – track titled Life on English version) and so many more. The band, which included exceptional musicians on violin, keyboards, slide guitar/guitar, bass, and drums, was top of class. Special guest Corrado Rustici, who worked on Shake, joined them on guitar for one track. The backdrop was, appropriately a framed heart, which was set off by moody low lighting, approaching brighter tones only when raising the house lights that illuminated the cheering crowd of both faithful followers and the newly informed.

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Though Zucchero occasionally sings in English, it’s when you listen to his sultry, whisky voice singing passionately in his native Italian tongue or occasional Spanish that you truly ‘feel’ his work. This is what we felt Sunday night, as the artist focused much less on any pop trappings, and absolutely more so his sultry, bluesy, and heartfelt work delivered in the more romantic languages. During one of only a couple breaks between songs, after apologizing the his English was “not so good,” Zucchero explained that he grew up listing to the music of many English artists, finding that even though he had no clue what they were saying, the “music spoke” to him, adding:

Music talk. You don’t have to understand everything. It’s the vibe, the feeling…

That we understood completely, as it was our experience that night, not knowing Italian beyond a few key words like Amore. Didn’t matter in the least, in fact it made the evening a unique and special experience. It certainly helped that Italian Americans and travelers at the show enthusiastically poured their affections out verbally and visibly all around us, helping to highlight what is so meaningful about Zucchero’s songs and lyrics. Catch this legendary artist in concert if you possibly can. Your heart will thank you.

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King of Keys

Roger King, the multi-talented musician and engineer has, among other projects been working with Steve Hackett now for more than 20 years. King had the enviable task of joining Hackett and a number of select peers to reinterpret Genesis songs originally composed and recorded between 1971 and 1977. These were released as two collections since the time he’s been on board. This King did while also recording and performing compelling new KingRoger2017_HackettGenesisRevII_72dpimaterial with Hackett and his band, taking all this out on the road. For any fan of Genesis, the fact that the band’s 70’s era guitarist has been dusting off these vaulted classics and presenting them live is continuing cause for celebration. At this point, just about every worthy track Hackett graced during his time with Genesis has been resurrected on record and/or in concert. Through it all, the enduring guitarist’s own band has become a finely honed outfit, and the live shows have been absolutely fantastic – I was privileged to see the complete set at the Royal Albert Hall, and have attended several gigs since, including last year’s mix of Genesis and solo classics –Alcolyte to Wolflight. Roger King was a fixture of these shows throughout, a key component of the band and it’s unique sound.

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Keyboard player Andrew Colyer (Circuline) and I had the chance to sit down and have a short talk with King on the recent Cruise to the Edge festival while on calm seas in the Gulf of Mexico. King began a musical journey in his youth as church organist, studying piano from an early age, then gaining a degree in music and sound engineering at University of Surrey in the UK. We started by asking about his early work as sound engineer and player, and how he became part of Steve Hackett’s band:

I recorded a lot of demos for Island records in the UK and did a lot of film work – some with Trevor Jones – maybe 5 or 6 years working on some fairly high profile movies as a keyboard-playing sound engineer. I did a lot of work on house mixes – 126bpm stomping remixes for the London club scene, which you can see as unlikely and it was but you fall into these things don’t you? It’s as a jobbing engineer.

I had a manager at that time who did a mail shot to potential employers as I lived in Twickenham in greater London. She happened upon a management company there who by chance was Steve’s then manager so I landed on their map as a local engineer and they just happened to be looking for someone so I got the call – this was back in 1995. I knew about Steve and Genesis, and had seen Steve in Guildford in Surrey when I was at University. Peter Gabriel and Mike Rutherford turned up so it was a nice gig to have seen!

KingRoger2017_HackettGenesisDVD_72dpiAs anyone who has seen the band live or collected the DVDs or recordings knows, the music of Genesis is given new life on these outings. As had been the case back when these songs were first played live, the music comes alive in concert. There is precision to the performances, along with some room for interpretation. It’s a beautiful near-contradiction – an updated sound that still hones closely to the spirit and letter of the original works – a pleasure for fans and newcomers alike. The accomplished band now includes Gary O’Toole (drums, percussion and vocals), Rob Townsend (winds, percussion), Nick Beggs (bass and paraphernalia), Nad Sylvan (vocals), and Roger King (keyboards).

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Roger’s performance is a critical part of making the original Genesis material sound so amazing 40-plus years after it was originally created. Given Tony Banks was such a precise player with such an identifiable sound, one who stayed close to recorded originals, we asked Roger about preparing to play these Genesis classics live. How does he find the right sounds to deploy when preparing for the recordings and tours – how balance vintage and modern technology?

It was quite a bit of work. Tony wasn’t particularly a technophile; he used what was in front of him. Yet you hear things he created such as the enormous strings sound on “The Fountain of Salmacis,” that I could never get anywhere near. He had and has a strong sensibility for sound – a powerful sonic signature to follow. And it’s a lot of work to try and get somewhere near it because those instruments – the Hammond, the Pro Soloist, and Mellotron themselves have such strong sonic signatures and characters.

I used an analog synth plug in – the U-He Diva that I’m really fond of in addition to their semi modular synth Ace which enables you to do some of the things – it’s the character I want really, rather than being as accurate to the original as possible. I’m not a nostalgia freak; it’s the character of the sounds that brings the original live in my memory. For example, we’re doing “One for the Vine” on this tour. It’s interesting to listen to the album version and live version, and see that live in 1977 most of the song is missing from the keyboard perspective because you couldn’t do it then, and yet we can to a greater extent cover the arrangements today. It’s a lovely song to play; it’s a terrific composition.

This seemed the moment to gush a bit about the quality of the performances and the audience response to these shows. The Genesis Revisited and Wolflight to Acolyte concerts were very special, and we asked Roger if he has a sense of how well they have been coming off – if he’s noticed the reaction to standout moments such as the coda to “Shadow of the Hierophant.” He is typically humble:

We’ve grown as a band, blessed with some top of class musicians. When you’re playing, using in-ear monitors, to a certain extent you’re divorced from what the audience is getting for the sake of clarity and saving your hearing and all the rest of it, but yeah I listen back to the live stuff occasionally and think “that’s okay yeah” (smiles) and there are bits of things we play where I was thinking when we first approached it, like some of the Wolflight material, well how are we going to do this live, it’s going to be a stripped back thing. Now I kind of prefer the live performances in a way, there is a bit more vitality.

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I have to say we are blessed with a world class front house engineer and the other technical guys – they are unbelievably good so they should take a lot of the credit – they’re really part of the band. We do need and have a front house engineer Ben Fenner who also acts as a kind of producer so he’s able to say to me or anyone else on stage – “that sound you make there, can we change it, or can you change the balance of your keyboards or what about playing a C there instead of a D” because he gets the big picture and we don’t – you have to have somebody you can trust who can guide you in these things as well – we’re hugely fortunate.

The coda to “Shadow…” is something we almost always play – it’s a simple piece of music but because it’s so loud and gets bigger and bigger so it does go down well. Steve enjoys playing it, just to make a din really, and give Gary a chance to let himself go – it’s almost, no exactly, like a drum solo!

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One of the follow up discussion points is about the emotional connection to this music. Roger shares that he is able to keep from the distraction of being emotionally overwhelmed by the swelling strings and quiet sentimental parts he’s playing – noting that while in the chair there is real focus. Plus, to really get at his core, he has to spin some original classical music. What’s his favorite music and how does he bring that to bear working with Steve and also with Nick Beggs in The Mute Gods? What’s coming up on both of these fronts?

KingRoger2017_MuteGodsNew_72dpiMy favorite is Twentieth Century orchestral music. Once upon a time playing the organ meant that Bach became central to my record collection. I really like Stravinski, Messian, Lutoslowski – all these huge orchestral works. Sometimes I get to visit the classics – for instance the new Mute Gods album is out now Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth. Nick said “I’d like to start it off with a funeral march, do you fancy writing a funeral march?” Funny way to start an album, we’ll just get all the death stuff over with! And it is a pretty doom-laden album as it happens. I thought, fantastic I can write something like a bit of Lutoslawski! There is a terrific piece of music, one of my favorite pieces by that composer called “Funereal Music” and I wanted to write something like that. It was great fun to get the orchestral chops polished a little bit.

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When I work with Steve, the basic structure of the songwriting is established as he comes up with the tunes. He might say to me “these are the chords, and I’ve got the tune, but Id like these bars to be orchestral.” So I roll up my sleeves and have a go at it. Parts of it work naturally live; others are a bit of work. At the end of recording, you’re presented with hundreds of tracks from the studio with layer upon layer of sound, and you look to make it work in concert as one keyboard player!

KingRoger2017_HackettSiren_72dpiThe next Steve Hackett album The Night Siren is just coming out in March. Best to ask Steve about it, but I would say it’s a natural follow on from Wolflight – maybe Son of Wolflight! It has many of the same characteristics in the songwriting and production. In many ways we’ve built on that, and included some international musicians. We are already playing some of it (on the cruise) and are looking forward to taking it out on the tour.

Given all that Roger is bringing to these projects for Steve Hackett and The Mute Gods, the natural question is, will we be hearing any Roger King solo material?

Nick is already talking about a third Mute Gods album, on an almost daily basis! And I know Steve will be saying he’s got some new things. My wife is encouraging me to do it – I’ve got people I can work with who are terrific, who are offering to make contributions, now its just a matter of time and energy, but expect it one day!

Let’s hope for that day to come. In the mean time, catch Roger during the next leg of Steve Hackett’s Night Siren tour, booked thus far in Europe and the U.K. from March to May, and watch for any gigs by The Mute Gods.

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